Hide and ski

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Today’s skiers and snowboarders are used to relying on the ski lifts at resorts to transport them to the top of a mountain before experiencing the intoxicating thrill of swooping down powder slopes.

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However, in some snow-covered villages of Altay Prefecture in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwest China, it is common to see local shepherds in winter with planks attached to their feet, climbing icy slopes without any other form of assistance . And they do it in a relatively agile way.

The pair of planks are wrapped with horsehair, which serves a dual purpose. Remarkably, the horsehide not only provides friction to prevent skiers from slipping during their climb, but also helps them slide more smoothly in the opposite direction.

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According to rock carvings discovered in the area by archaeologists, such skis have served as a means of transportation for the snowy inhabitants of Altai for about 12,000 years, especially those who had to herd or hunt animals. Had to walk a long way in the snow.

In recent decades, fur skis gradually lost their popularity as paved roads began to connect homes to the outside world. As a result, artisans making fur skis had little opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

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Now, Altay plans to protect and promote its skiing culture and to better pass on its skiing tradition to future generations. The prefecture hopes to develop itself as a popular destination for skiers and snowboarders. As a result, ancient fur skis and the craft of making them have found a new lease of life in modern times.

Silambek Sakish, 67, a shepherd from the village of Lasti in Altay, began learning the craft from his father at the age of 15.

“When I was young, most of the people in my village wearing fur skis would go out in search of firewood or to graze their animals. Being one of the few families in the village that knew how to make special shoes, we could make money selling fur skis every snow season,” he recalls.

The skis sold well into the winter, but to prepare for the increase in sales, the family usually began production during the summer, sun-drying cedar wood and buying horse hides from slaughterhouses.

Mr. Sakish will first cut high quality pine into a plank and heat it to the point where it is flexible enough to fold the front end up. Wrapping the plank with horse skin is the last step. “I would wear the newly made fur skis to test them by sliding them on the snow to see if they were durable and practical,” he says.

In 2010 Mr. Sakish was honored as the heir to the craft of making fur skis, which was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Xinjiang. Supported by the local government, they established a woodworking studio, where they not only produce traditional handmade fur skis, but also make wooden souvenirs related to the skiing culture of Altai for tourists to buy.

“A pair of fur skis can sell for around 1,500 yuan (£175). Last year, I made about 60,000 yuan from the business,” he says.

His works are also exhibited in ski resorts, airports and train stations in Altai and in an exhibition center for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics to promote the prefecture’s deep historical connection to skiing.

More youth have come to him to learn the craft, and his youngest son, who is 31, has followed in his footsteps, carrying on the tradition.

First Chinadaily.com.cn. Published on

Credit: www.independent.co.uk /

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